The United Nations appeared to move a step closer on Thursday to holding North Korea’s government accountable for what an investigative panel has called a history of crimes against humanity and egregious human rights abuses, as the Security Council convened a special session to hear the panel’s views on what should be done.
It was the first time that the Security Council had taken up the question of human rights in North Korea, the world’s most isolated country, which is already under heavy international sanctions because of its nuclear weapons and missile activities.
Diplomats and rights activists who were invited to attend the session, which was closed to the news media, said they believed at least 10 of the 13 council members who attended would be inclined to refer North Korean leaders to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands, for prosecution — and, at the very least, to debate such a decision. China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the council, did not attend, but rights advocates said they were encouraged, nonetheless.
The Security Council session came two months after the U.N. investigative panel, a three-member commission led by a retired Australian judge, Michael D. Kirby, issued a damning report about what it described as North Korea’s vast system of slave-like prison camps and other forms of state-sanctioned torture, intimidation and repression.
The commission’s findings, after a yearlong inquiry in which thousands of North Korean refugees and others were interviewed outside the country, led the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last month to recommend some form of criminal accountability for North Korean leaders. Kirby’s panel was not permitted to enter North Korea.
Unlike the Human Rights Council, the Security Council has the power to refer countries to the International Criminal Court, which was established more than a decade ago.
Kirby, an outspoken jurist, told Security Council members that “accountability is not optional” in the case of North Korea, where he said the rights abuses “exceed all others in duration, intensity and horror,” according to an account of his remarks provided by rights advocates invited to attend the session.
Kirby also spoke later at a news conference outside the Security Council’s chambers.
“Enough is enough,” Kirby told reporters. “The time has come for the international community to insist on action.” Based on the questions the panelists fielded at the session, he said, “the only real question I detected was what that action should exactly be and when it should be taken.”
He estimated that 80,000 to 120,000 North Koreans toil in the country’s prison camps, underfed and overworked, many of them held without any form of due process. “If ever there is to be a case for referral of a matter to the International Criminal Court, it is difficult to imagine a stronger case than has been laid out in the case of North Korea,” he said.